Is the Judiciary exempt from the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act through sovereign immunity or the separation of powers doctrine?

Renner v. Court of Common Pleas of Lehigh Cty., 195 A.3d 1070 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2018), reargument en banc denied (Dec. 3, 2018), allocatur granted July 2, 2019, appeal docket 52 MAP 2019

Renner, a former parole officer in Lehigh County, sued the Lehigh County Common Pleas Court for unlawful discrimination under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA). Renner alleged that after being diagnosed with a serious medical condition, he was treated with hostility by his supervisors, pretextually fired, and stymied in obtaining subsequent employment as a result of actions taken by the same individuals.  The trial court sustained the defendants’ preliminary objections that the doctrines of sovereign immunity and separation of powers bar suit against the judiciary under the PHRA.

The Commonwealth Court, in a per curiam opinion, affirmed.  As to sovereign immunity, the Court first acknowledged that it held in Allegheny County v. Wilcox, 465 A.2d 47 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1983) that because Section 4(b) of the PHRA’s definition of “employer” does not specifically except the common pleas court from the PHRA’s ambit, it was the legislature’s intent that the common pleas court be subject to the PHRA. However, “the fact that the PHRA’s definition of employer could be construed to include the common pleas court is not dispositive of the sovereign immunity issue” slip op. at 10, and the court looked to 42 Pa.C.S. § 8521(a), the exclusive listing of instances in which the Commonwealth has waived sovereign immunity, which makes no mention of judiciary liability under the PHRA. Moreover, the court observed, it determined in Russo v. Allegheny Cty., 125 A.3d 113, 117 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2015), aff’d, 150 A.3d 16 (Pa. 2016) in the context of a would e suit against the judiciary under the Whistleblower Law, that a court of common pleas, as “a court of the unified judicial system, is entitled to the sovereign immunity of the Commonwealth.”

As to separation of powers, the court looked to the Supreme Court’s teaching in First Judicial District of Pennsylvania v. Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, 727 A.2d 1110 (Pa. 1999), where it revisited previous cases and clarified that the PHRC has no jurisdiction, because of the separation of powers doctrine, to adjudicate any complaints against the judicial branch, even where a complaint based on the PHRA, but not involving the Human Relations Commission itself, is involved. “Under the separation of powers doctrine, the legislature may not exercise any power specifically entrusted to the judiciary.” Erie County, 682 A.2d at 1247. “[T]hus[,] . . . legislation infringing upon [the Pennsylvania Supreme] Court’s authority over Pennsylvania courts is invalid.” Id.  Based on this reasoning, the Commonwealth Court concluded:

because the General Assembly cannot interfere with the Supreme Court’s authority “to provide for . . . the administration of all courts” through the PHRA, Renner could not bring this action against Common Pleas Court thereunder. First Judicial Dist., 727 A.2d at 1112. In other words, because Common Pleas Court is a part of the judiciary, it is not subject to the PHRA. See L.J.S. v. State Ethics Comm’n, 744 A.2d 798 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2000) (A probation officer is a judicial employee, thus, under the separation of powers doctrine, is not subject to the Public Official and Employee Ethics Act.10); Russo, 125 A.3d at 121 (“[T]he General Assembly did not intend the judiciary to be included within the definition of an employer subject to the Whistleblower Law. ” The common pleas court is a part of the judiciary, thus, under the separation of powers doctrine, is not subject to the Whistleblower Law.).

Slip Op. at 12.

The Supreme Court granted allocatur on the following issues as stated by Petitioner:

(1) Did the Legislature intend for the Unified Judicial System to be within the definition of “employer” under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Law, and therefore abrogated its sovereign immunity as stated in the en banc decision in County of Allegheny v. Wilcox, 76 Pa.Cmwlth. 584, 465 A.2d 47 (1983)[?]

(2) Does the application of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act to the Unified Judicial System violate separation of powers so long as the Human Relations Commission neither investigates nor adjudicates the complaint of discrimination, as this Court held in Ct. of Com. Pleas of Erie County (6th Jud. Dist.), Juv. Probation Dept. v. Pennsylvania Human Rel. Commn., 546 Pa. 4, 682 A.2d 1246 (1996) and First Jud. Dist. of Pennsylvania v. Pennsylvania Human Rel. Comm’n., 556 Pa. 258, 727 A.2d 1110 (1999)?

Allocatur grants present an excellent opportunity for your group or association to advance your legal and policy goals by filing an amicus brief. Participating as an amicus has proven to be an effective method of advising and influencing courts and often can involve far fewer resources than traditional lobbying.

If you are interested or would like more information, contact Kevin McKeon or Dennis Whitaker.